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Hanoi: The Cultural Crucible

Never before have I visited a place with so much to write about. Many of my experiences in Hanoi were worthy of their own story. Yet along the way, there were several sites and peculiar moments that were equally fascinating and worthy of a tale, though not quite meaty enough to earn a whole post to themselves.

As such, this is their story. These are the unsung and wonderful tales of all the sites and everything else Hanoi has to offer.

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Finally Arrived in Vietnam

As the first 2 days of our time in Vietnam were spent on a Halong Bay cruise, we hadn’t had the time to settle in. As amazing as our time had been up to that point, it just didn’t feel like we were in Vietnam… not yet anyway.

Once we were off the cruise, we headed straight to our homestay in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Even better, it was placed right on the edge of West Lake. This was one of the few times I had my own basic bitch requirements – I needed a balcony. There was just something about Vietnam that called for it.

I envisioned myself waking up in the morning with a freshly brewed coffee and stepping outside to the noise and chaos of the city as the orange glow of the sun began to rise above.

Looking out over the beautiful sites of Hanoi

By the time we got there, the sun had already begun to set, bringing that warm orange glow down low enough to glisten off the surface of the lake. With The Stones blaring in the background, I finally felt that I had arrived.

Another Country, Another Temple

As dedicated readers will know by now, I’ve visited a temple or two in my day. From the frozen wastelands of Northern China to the oceanside cliffs of Indonesia, there’s been plenty to feed my spiritual fix. In Vietnam, I expected to see much more temple sites than I did, though there was one of note in Hanoi.

Tran Quoc Pagoda was only a stone’s throw away from our homestay, and with the setting of the sun, we arrived at the perfect time. The central pagoda stood proud and cast a gorgeous silhouette against the sun. Despite being in the heart of the madness, at that moment, it was the most peaceful place on Earth.

Hanoi sites pagoda
The pagoda as the sun begins to set

Nearby the pagoda were countless illustrations that depicted with extraordinary accuracy how karma actually works. Whatever act you may commit, good or bad, they had a specific result for it. Looking down on others brought disease, burning down a building brought a fiery afterlife, and the funniest of all for an English teacher such as myself, disrespecting teachers resulted in people neglecting you as you talk. So you damned kids better listen, ya hear?

Listen up kids!

A Slice of the Colonial Life

For weeks now I’ve been trying to put my finger on what exactly makes Vietnam so unique. How can I define such a complex country in just a few words? It’s one of those nations that have received a momentous amount of influence (most of the time unwillingly) from other countries and cultures. Yet somehow Vietnam has been able to embrace it to such an extent that they’ve created something wholeheartedly unique.

Feeling awfully colonial

That was the surreal experience we had as we sat outside a streetside café enjoying a freshly brewed coconut coffee as we gazed at a Catholic cathedral that was ornately lavished with Christmas decorations.

At that moment, as I diligently scribbled away in my humble diary, it finally occurred to me that this would be a country I would be happy to live in. Not many have earned that right.

Visiting The Hilton

There’s no secret that I was introduced to Vietnam through countless classic war movies, as have many others. As such, visiting some war-related monuments and sites was very high on my must-do list. It took us till the end of our trip to finally be able to explore some of Vietnam’s more tragic history.

The best opportunity to learn about it was in Hoa Lo Prison, otherwise affectionately known as the Hanoi Hilton.

Hanoi sites prison
One of the most significant sites in Hanoi

It was first used by the colonizing French as a place to hold troublesome revolutionaries, though soon enough the tables had turned. By the beginning of the Vietnam War, the prison was used to house American prisoners of war, with its most famous resident being Mr John McCain himself!

It was a tragic outlook on the treatment of the locals and a look at the squalid conditions they were forced to live in. Though a constant theme the monument tried to establish was that their treatment of prisoners was far more humane than the colonizers were to them. Who knows if that is actually true or not?

Just like Hanoi, Okinawa is full of war sites too!

Here’s the ultimate guide on how to explore some of the most significant monuments and battle sites related to the war on Okinawa.

Click here!

We Shot Down a B-52

Turns out that a huge source of pride for the Vietnamese during the war was bringing down as many American B-52s as possible. Propaganda posters and slogans throughout the city’s souvenir shops proved as much. Yet there was even living proof of their symbolic victory.

We hopped in a taxi and made our way into the outskirts of the city centre, a place where few taxis found themselves. We arrived at a small lake about 25mx25m large with a unique monument standing within. It was the remnants of a B-52 that had been shot down during the war and simply left there ever since.

Hanoi sites b52
The gunned down B-52 in the middle of the lake

It was standing directly in front of an elementary school, and it perfectly illustrated the Vietnamese spirit. This wreckage was not seen as a tragic reminder of the horrors they had faced, rather it was a source of pride. It was something that the youth of Vietnam would see every day on their way to school, to remind them of the will and tenacity of their people, and the battle they fought for what they saw as their freedom.

Eating With Good Company

As with other adventures we’ve been on, Jess always finds the coolest spots to eat. This time was no exception. Hanoi once played host to one of the greatest meetings of minds in one of its local eateries. It was of course the momentous sit-down between then-President Obama and the late great Anthony Bourdain.

Obama and Bourdain’s iconic meal

The iconic moment saw them sit down for a local meal while enjoying a Hanoi beer, so by god, we’d do the same. Sadly for us… we were in the completely wrong restaurant. In the confusing labyrinth of local spots all selling the same item, we had been fooled. Regardless, it was the exact same meal that they both ate, so close enough.

The Water Theatre

In search of unique cultural sites to check out, we found quite a doozy! Weeks before, we’d been reading up about the water puppet show, which was one of the city’s must-dos. In the end, we were fortunate not to miss out on the opportunity.

Hanoi traffic being what it was, we missed the first show we’d booked. We missed out on the front-row seats and had to throw 200,000 dong down the drain. Though coming close to £7, it wasn’t the end of the world.

Once we were at the Water Puppet Theatre, it was one of the best experiences I had in Hanoi. It was one of those moments where you feel you’re witnessing an event that has remained the same for decades, maybe even centuries! I had the same kind of awe-inspiring tingle when I met a Maiko in Kyoto, I felt honoured to be able to see it for myself.

Hanoi sites water puppets
One of the more cultural sites in Hanoi

The only thing that made it look different to your typical theatre was a small pool of water standing where the stage would normally be. I’m still yet to figure out how they did it, but it seems that these figures were controlled from beneath the water somehow.

Despite not understanding a single word, it was adorable seeing the miniature puppets skipping across the water after fish, dragons and wonderfully fragile birds. The entire show had a constant soundtrack which was played by the band sitting on either side of the central pool. In the end, I’m glad we didn’t miss out.

Yet Another Odd Coffee

Yet another colonial hangover, coffee is very big in Vietnam. So much so, they even have their own versions that have earned their place on the caffeine-infused map.

Vietnamese coffee is prepared with its very own dripper, one that I even had to buy myself! The secret ingredient is a healthy dose of condensed milk, which is pretty popular in Asia and a one-way track to diabetes.

Yet, that is by no means the weirdest variety. Another must-try of Vietnamese cuisine was egg coffee. Yes, you read that right, EGG coffee. They prepare a cooked frothy egg mixture which is then poured on top of a freshly brewed coffee. So of course, we had to try it!


We naturally had to go to the OG of egg coffee houses to try it. In the end, it was nowhere near as bad as it sounds. It was up kind of sweet cappuccino with a bit more sweetness to it. Not something I would drink daily, but still good, nonetheless.

I Love the Smell of Museums in the Morning

On our final day, we only had time to see one more thing. Of all the spots worth checking out, I of course had to have a war-related site. No better place to get a brief crash course on the fascinating and tragic history of the war that put this country on the map for many people.

We travelled to the Vietnam Military History Museum which had several relics not only dedicated to the US war, but also against their original French colonizers. From preserved weaponry to detailed accounts of the violent uprisings, it was a fascinating outlook.

Smells like democracy to me

As amazing as all the relics were, nothing beat the life-sized crafts that stood outside the museum. The most iconic of all were the notorious huey helicopters that are synonymous with the images of the war. For me, it was the perfect cherry on top of the glorious Vietnam cake.

Hanoi sites war museum
Get to da choppa!

Thank you so much for reading about the sites in Hanoi: The Cultural Crucible! Check out these other helpful articles!

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